A culture of sustainable, intentional growth has propelled Newfoundland and Labrador’s Genoa Design International to heavyweight status in the North American shipbuilding and defence sector.
Genoa Design International has been named one of The Globe and Mail’s Top Growing Companies in Canada for 2021. Ranking high on this year’s list, the company’s trajectory to growth has been over 25 years in the making. It’s a success story built upon a mindset of innovation and sustained growth, and the fostering of a thriving ecosystem. And it has all been achieved from an unlikely place – a rocky island in the North Atlantic.
Genoa Design is anchored firmly in the middle of the shipbuilding process. The company delivers production design and 3D modeling services to ship and naval defence builders (think tech-based company with traditional industry clients).
Genoa started in 1995 from the home of company founder and former Canadian Military Naval Officer Leonard Pecore in Newfoundland and Labrador. His concept was a novel one at the time – that engineering designs for ships could be delivered remotely over the internet. It turned out to be a pretty good idea.
Charting a new course in shipbuilding
The road to Genoa becoming the largest dedicated firm of its kind in North America really kicked into high gear when the Canadian Government set out to rebuild its naval fleet and do so at home. It launched its National Shipbuilding Strategy (NSS) and effectively spawned a new shipbuilding ecosystem overnight.
“We were one of the small businesses at the time perfectly positioned to raise our hand and jump on board this opportunity,” explains Gina Pecore, Genoa Design’s CEO. “We found our footing pretty quickly and haven’t looked back since.”
Since joining the NSS in 2012 Genoa’s workforce has grown from less than 20 to a bench strength of 300. Evolving in tandem with growth is the company’s capabilities and capacity to take on significantly larger, more complex projects. Increasingly these opportunities exist beyond Canada. In 2020, Genoa secured a key role on the US Polar Security Cutter (icebreaker) program and will soon transfer that expertise by starting work on Canada’s next polar icebreaker. That’s two massive ships for two different nations operating on both poles.
An intentional growth mindset
Playing in the shipbuilding and national defence vessel construction industry is serious business. Lives and the security of countries are at stake. Genoa’s unique approach to the way it scales the company and builds teams in a project-based environment is key to ensuring the integrity of the work they do.
“We have never pursued growth for the sake of growth,” says Pecore. “We could have chased volume by adding contractors to get more projects out the door – we haven’t done that, and that’s intentional.”
Genoa Design made a day one decision to invest in people, onboarding full-time employees rather than strictly contractors. That’s a rarity in the world of mega-projects, where onboarding only for specific projects or timelines is the norm.
“We grow our team with a long-term vision for the company and its success,” explains Erika Kelland, Genoa’s Communications and Marketing Manager. “We’ve made an intentional decision to put people first and invest in our culture. We are a team that delivers these projects as a unit and have always recognized the power that culture plays in that. You don’t have the same connection when you are a band of contractors versus a fully embedded, foundational team.”
Placing talent in surprising ways
You would expect the CEO of a company in a traditional sector like shipbuilding to have risen the ranks from within the industry. Gina Pecore bucks that trend, with a career that began in the Royal Canadian Navy and then grew into senior business and communications consultancy roles. This has trickled down into the DNA of the company with a surprising percentage of Genoa’s employees hired from non-adjacent industries. It’s in fact a deliberate strategy.
“We made a conscious decision to look outside for talent and then place people in unexpected ways,” explains Pecore. “Having widely different viewpoints from other fields, for us that’s an asset.” Genoa is keenly interested in a candidate’s resume and their match to a role, but they’re also interested in a person’s intrinsic qualities and the way they see the world around them.
The company’s innovation approach demonstrates that thinking in action. Marine architects and engineers join software developers, graphic designers, project managers and even bioinformaticians (specialists concerned with complex biological data sets) to solve industry pain points and explore new market opportunities. “Each brings to the table perspectives and abilities as unique as their backgrounds,” according to Colin Corbett, Genoa’s Associate Director of Innovation.
“I have an Arts Degree from Memorial University and previously worked in the oil and gas industry,” says Corbett. “Genoa’s focus on diversity and growing a continuous improvement culture has helped drive innovation by empowering every employee to answer the question “What do you think?”.”
Diversity, open mindsets, and fresh industry perspectives – important lessons for companies in any industry.
Building an island of innovation
Newfoundland and Labrador’s blossoming tech scene has been making headlines. The term ‘Silicon Island’ has even popped up. It makes for a good story about thriving in an unlikely place. Often the tale is one of entrepreneurs wanting to return to their roots to build a company. This wasn’t the case for Genoa.
“This is not just about the pride of Newfoundlanders,” explains Pecore. “The fact that this is an ocean economy right here, really helps us, and the exponential leaps being made in the local tech sector fuels our potential even further. Combine that with the fact that this province is an ideal place to live and work and suddenly, scaling a business from Newfoundland and Labrador makes a whole lot of sense.”
One of the advantages of a thriving tech sector is the boost to finding talent and tech partners. “There is a technology soup here,” says Pecore, “we are all in it, and it provides a lot of optimism, and technology-based expertise to grow our businesses.” She adds that being named one of the country’s top growing companies is not just about Genoa, it’s reflective of the province. “It speaks to a whole new way of looking at the geography of where we live and what’s happening in that geography. Now, the whole idea of ‘Can you deliver sustainable growth from Newfoundland and Labrador?’ has an answer. It’s ‘yes, you can.’”
Local success stories like Genoa and Verafin, a fin-tech security company recently sold to Nasdaq for $2.5 billion US, has helped shift the lens on the province as being an exciting, energetic place to live with serious opportunities for tech-enabled companies and talent.
“The marine industry here has been narrowly defined, often limited on one end to the fishery and on the other to offshore development. That sometimes made recruitment from the local market tough,” says Pecore. “The tech industry is putting a whole new face on that. We’re attracting people from different fields and places who now see this place as not just a viable option, but as an exciting place to live and work.”
Scanning new horizons
Genoa has firmly positioned itself as a North American shipbuilding tech leader. As the company continues to serve customers and do the work of today (and there’s plenty of it for decades to come), the team is well positioned to look towards the future and what’s possible, applying what they do beyond their immediate industry.
“The vision for where this company can go, it just gets more exciting every day,” says Pecore.